Tried to experiment with rhythm in this one. Don’t know how well it worked.
I avoided looking at the people around me. It was safer that way. Animals interpret eye contact as a threat. I kept my eyes low. The bus shook as it went over a bump. The springs were worn out and would have to be replaced soon. I read the safety information, printed in red. The morning was colourless, cold. Someone coughed, a ragged wet sound. Disease spread easily on public transport. I counted twenty-two people. Their faces were hidden behind scarves. A newspaper rustled. One flipped the pages of a book. I willed the time on.
I approached the entrance to my building. It blended into the sky, ashen and bare. I didn’t know when it had been built. I got the sense that it had always been there. Shuttered and locked windows lined the outside walls. Yellowing posters slowly peeled away from the glass. A lot of businesses had inhabited the building over the years. Some survived, but most didn’t. They left suddenly, leaving empty offices. Some vanished in such a hurry they left furniture behind, standing unused and frozen in time. Others stripped the copper wiring from the walls, leaving ragged scars in the plaster. No one said anything about it. It was forty-two steps from the front entrance to the stairwell.
I hoped the receptionist wouldn’t notice. She would try to talk to me. She would ask questions about my day, smiling at me with bright red lipstick. I would get nervous, and mix my answers up. I would say that I had to leave, that I had work to do, but she would continue to talk until I felt sick. She knew that it made me uncomfortable. I would hear her laughing softly to herself as she tapped on her keyboard. I moved quickly, my head down. My shoes squeaked on the linoleum. She looked up from her desk. The fluorescent lighting flickered and I saw the red lips smile at me.
I hurried down to the basement. Sweat beaded on my forehead. There were three flights to descend. I took the stairs two at a time, sometimes three. My identification card bounced on my pocket. When I reached the basement, the security guard lifted a finger in greeting. He opened the door and sat back on his stool. We never speak. I couldn’t even picture his face. Getting through that door was all that mattered to me. As the door swung open, the metal freezers hummed in greeting. Relief poured over me.
It was time to begin. I clenched the chart in my hands. The first of the day. The deceased’s information was neatly typed in black on a white page. She was thirty years old, of average height and weight. No children. A massive cerebral haemorrhage had killed her instantly. She probably didn’t even feel it, just blinked out of consciousness like turning off a switch. But none of this concerned me. It didn’t matter who she was, or where she was from. I told her my name as I snapped on my gloves. Told her that an autopsy was to be performed, that it was my job. I hummed softly to myself, matching the pitch of the freezers. I brushed hair out of her eyes with a gloved finger. I told her about the morning, how grey and chill it was. As I spoke, I moved through my preparation. I laid my tools laid out, descending in order, the metal shining. Superiority dictated by usefulness. Life was not as simple, but death could be. I began to feel my thoughts slow, fade away. It always did here. Soon I would be tranquil as water. I said not to worry; I wouldn’t hurt her. I made my incision. Red blood spilled bright over my gloves. I smiled. I was amongst friends.
Here’s some more short story nonsense.
In the cold hours of an early April morning, Cole Lowman’s feet squelched into half-melted snow as he trudged to work, head ducked low in a tailored black overcoat. The fog hung thickly in velvet sheets, enveloping everything it touched. The sun didn’t seem to have the energy to fight the gloom these days, not that Cole could really blame it. As he walked, sleet drifted down and danced before his face, and cold air stung his eyes. Headlights of sickly yellow cut through the fog as the first car of the morning traffic felt its way along the road. The driver, a lumpy mass of scarf and coat, peered impatiently over his steering wheel as though he believed that pinched face indignation would somehow make the fog lift faster. More headlights soon appeared. The thought occurred to Cole that the world always woke up, no matter how lousy the weather. The apocalypse could occur this very morning, and no doubt people would still go about their routines, oblivious. Unless, perhaps, they pulled up beside the unusual sight of a skeletal horseman stuck in traffic. Jobs to work, money to earn and bills to pay, with the occasional buying of coffee machines and the like. The things we live for. As he squished along the footpath, his feet rapidly turning numb, Cole wondered dimly just when life had become this way. A car bounced through nearby pothole, splattering Cole with icy mud. It was going to be a dismal day.
It was 6.49am when Cole got to the corner of his bus stop. He was adhering to his usual schedule. He had somehow become a punctilious man, although he wasn’t exactly sure when or how it had happened. The bus would arrive at 6.52am, Cole would step onboard, take his usual seat, and stare out the window as the bus clattered down the road, belching black smoke and stopping intermittently to disgorge people along the way. Cole had a few minutes before he was due to cross the road to the bus stop, and paused a moment. He rubbed his hands together, and blew air on his fingers, hoping that the feeling would return to them. His employer would have little use for a frostbitten typist. His boss, a bald, permanently red-faced man with a tie that was always done up too tight, would remind Cole that he had better look after himself, because he didn’t have any sick days left. Cole sighed and watched as his breath spiralled away into the morning air. Faces buried in scarves and jackets hurried past him, each a walking set of blank eyes and headphones marching along to their own soundtrack. One set of eyes cast a glance at Cole, darting downwards and narrowing slightly, before meeting his gaze. The strangely bright eyes, set in an elegant, angular face of a young man, moved towards him. A surge of anxiety spiked in Cole’s chest, and he remained still. The strange man moved close to Cole, and leaned in. ‘Don’t be late, Cole. You’ll miss your bus’ the voice said, softly whispering in his ear. Terror spread through Cole like molten hot metal in his veins. He turned and ran. His pulse drummed in his ears and his mouth turned acrid as he hurried across the road. As he ran, his mind scrambled with panic, he wondered deliriously if anything that morning was real. Cole was prone to panic attacks, and he had been suffering more of them of late. But, in addition to their usual effects, unpleasant as they may be, there would additional consequences today. Cole would no doubt now be late. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, it caused Cole to be completely unaware as he wandered into the path of the oncoming 409 bus. His thoughts were abruptly interrupted as the bus ploughed into him, flinging him across the road. His skin ground away against the bitumen as the world became a garbled blur of gravel and pain, spinning wildly as he tumbled. A scream sounded from an onlooker as Cole came to a stop in the gutter. Now a mangled mess of broken bones and spreading blood, his thoughts slowly ebbed away into blackness as horrified faces peered down at him.
‘Call an ambulance!’ he heard a voice shriek.
‘Not going to help him, lady. He’s a goner’ a gruff voice replied. He felt a foot poke at his side. ‘Might as well call him a hearse.’
All in all, a dismal day. But, Cole thought deliriously as his vision faded for the final time, a dismal day that was now done.
Cole’s eyes snapped open. He was seated on a worn padded chair, clothed and apparently healthy, free from any of the typical aftereffects of being run over by a bus. He had regained consciousness in a panelled room, dimly lit by a single flickering light, swaying gently from the ceiling. Yellow dust hung thickly in the air, and twisting veins of darkly coloured wood lined the room, warped and in danger of splintering apart. A single closed door stood at one end. A sickly-sweet odour of decay, a nauseating blend of decomposing wood and rotting gardenias, caused Cole to gag violently. This was not where he was supposed to be. Cole slowly rose to his feet, and ran his hands over himself. He was sure that he was supposed to be dead. But, no matter how many times he checked, everything on his body was where it should be. Moving over to a window, he peered out at a blackened sky, splattered with brilliant white cracks that spread like webs to the horizon. Straight roads with glowing streetlamps spread out into the darkness, each dotted with buildings that pumped smoke into the air in rhythmic bursts. Cole stumbled back to his chair. It was all utterly incomprehensible. He pressed his face into his hands.
‘First time?’ a voice asked.
Cole became aware that he was not alone. He looked up, and saw a young man seated in the far corner of the room. He seemed relatively normal, if somewhat unnervingly ambivalent about their current situation. As Cole focused his vision, he saw that the young man’s eyes glowed faintly, as if reflecting a candlelight that wasn’t there.
‘Is this your first time through, I mean’ said the young man. He leant back in his chair and stretched.
Cole got up and pulled frantically at the lone door, before banging on it with his fists.
‘That won’t do anything. It doesn’t open until you’re called’ he said as Cole clawed at the door. ‘Didn’t you read the sign?’ He yawned and gestured to a sign hung pointedly above the door. It read:
‘Sit until called. Do not leave the room. Do not cut the line. No fighting. And don’t forget to smile!*
*Failure to smile is an offence
Printed by Because I Said So Civic Control Corp.’
‘The no fighting part always makes me laugh,’ the young man continued. ‘I mean, what’s the point of fighting if the person you just killed can just reattach their head?’
Cole slumped into a corner, breathing rapidly. He tried to remember the breathing exercises his doctor had given him, but realised with horror that these may not work if you aren’t breathing at all. The curious young man stood, and moved over to Cole. He knelt on his haunches, and placed a hand on Cole’s shoulder.
‘I’m sorry, I forget sometimes that this isn’t exactly easy. I’m Nine. Stupid name, I know, but it isn’t my original. Long story.’ He took Cole’s hand and shook it.
‘I’m … Cole.’
Nine smiled. ‘Well Cole, I find the best way is the most direct. You’re dead, and you’ve ended up here. I don’t know if this is the afterlife, but if it is, it’s pretty disappointing, really.’ Nine looked around the room, and sighed.
Coles breathing began to slow. He looked up at the young man with the glowing eyes.
‘The last thing I remember,’ Cole said, ‘was crossing a road. And maybe a bus. And pain.’ He shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.
Nine grimaced. ‘You remember less each time, but that doesn’t sound like a good one. I’ve had a few bad ones myself. One happened on a roller coaster called ‘The Slicer.’ Nine walked over to the window, and peered through. ‘If I’d known it was going to be that literal, I probably wouldn’t have gotten on.’
Suddenly, an announcement sounded from a crackling speaker.
‘Cole Lowman, please enter Receiving Room One.’
Nine helped Cole to his feet, and brushed the dust from his clothes in quick swipes.
‘That’s you. Better get in there. You don’t want to miss your appointment, or you’ll end up like old man Dusty over there.’ Nine pointed to a dimly lit corner. There sat an old man, gnarled and grey, beard trailing on the ground and covered in brown dust, unmoving and blended into the wall.
‘That’s a man?’ Cole said, recoiling.
‘Used to be, I guess. No one knows how long he’s been here for. His marbles have pretty much all rolled away now.’
The old man creaked his head in their direction, dust falling from him in clumps of dirty snow.
‘On and on we try, born without being alive, but there can be no hope, in a place where not even time can fly’ the old man rasped, soil blowing from his lungs.
Cole hesitantly opened the door. A desk stood in a circle of light, behind which a tall man stood. His back turned, he was clutching an open file, his arms unnaturally long. Cole saw with horror that a noose was tied around his neck, buried into glaring red flesh. He took a step back.
‘Don’t worry. It’ll be alright. Well, maybe. But you have to go in.’ Nine placed an arm around Cole’s shoulder. ‘I’ll see you again, ok? I guarantee it.’
Cole nodded, and slowly headed into the room, the door slamming shut behind him.
Cole looked out across the vast factory. Oil dripped freely from the walls, forming brown pools upon the rivet-studded floor, shimmering with heat. Blasts of steam hissed as the machines pumped, throwing rust and metal shavings into the air where it slowly fell in polluted flakes. Sallow faces stared at the conveyor belt in front of them, assembling parts that came past. His fellow workers, some of whom still carried evidence of their latest demise, stared straight ahead through glassy eyes, mouths agape and covered in ochre grime. The strange man in the room had certainly not sugar coated it. He had been given a pamphlet, taken to a bus, shoved onboard, and promptly driven to his new place of work. The pamphlet, entitled ‘So, you’re life-impaired!’ explained that as a new arrival, Cole was entitled to a dwelling and employment, where he was expected to work. It was all part of what was termed the ‘adjusting period’. Cole could expect to work here for a few hundred years, before a position possibly opened up in management. It was not optional. Each factory was staffed with similar men to the one in the room, each with a noose around their neck, and they prowled around the factory floor, making sure that everything remained in order. They often dragged malingerers to a lower floor of the factory, and usually, they did not return. To Cole, this seemed to be a slight subversion of ‘eternal rest’. But, with no choice given, he worked.
Cole felt a tap on his shoulder. He wasn’t sure how long he had been working, or even if time really meant anything in a place such as this. He turned to see the face of Nine close to his.
‘Follow me’ Nine said, his voice low.
Cole never usually liked to leave in the middle of shifts. In his old life, he was infamous for being one of the few employees to have remained at his desk during a building fire. Luckily for Cole, it was extinguished shortly before he had to get up.
‘Yes. Now. This way.’
Ducking low, Nine slunk through the factory, avoiding the gaze of the patrolling Noose-men. He stopped at a large iron door which led outside, and gestured for Cole to hurry. Reluctantly, Cole crouched, and followed.
Cole and Nine stood on top of a cliff, overlooking an immense murky sea. The sable waves churned below, crashing into jagged rocks that stuck out like broken teeth, stained inky black by time. A lone wooden sign stood at the peak. It read: ‘Everywhere is nowhere. Everyone is no one. There is no escape’.
‘Ignore that,’ Nine said, shrugging off his jacket. ‘That’s just there as a loss-prevention device.’
Cole looked down over the edge of the cliff to the crashing waves below.
‘This next part might get a little wet. That down there, is how you get out of here. Only way to do it is to jump. Might want to hold your nose, or something.’
Cole backed away from the edge. He had never been a great swimmer.
‘That’s how to escape?’ Cole said, hugging himself against the wind. ‘Isn’t there a better way?’
Nine stripped off his shirt.
‘Believe me, I’ve looked. This is the only way. I’ve done this before.’ A tinge of sadness crept into his voice. ‘It leads to the surface, or whatever world you left behind. Problem is, they look for you, and find ways to bring you back. Each time you move between the two, you lose a little piece of yourself.’ Nine crouched, and ran his hands through the rough gravel of the clifftop, pebbles falling through his fingers. ‘Pieces chip away from you, like your memory. Nine isn’t my name. Truth is, I can’t remember it anymore. It’s only the number of times I came through here before I lost count. To be completely honest, I’m not even sure if I’m human anymore.’ Nine looked up at Cole, his eyes glowing faintly. ‘But you have to make a choice. I made mine. And now you do too.’ With that, Nine leapt off the cliff, disappearing into the waves below.
Cole was never one to break rules. His whole life he had done what he was told, sat up as straight as he could, and the only thing it had gotten him was the privilege of being hit by a bus. He wasn’t sure of it, but he felt he was close to grasping the answer to a question that had long eluded him. The answer lay at the bottom of that cliff. With a deep breath, Cole stepped off the edge, into the abyss below.
I’d been thinking about my grandmother recently, and decided to write about her early life for a non-fiction piece. This could be a lot longer, but I was working to a word limit and a little constrained. I might revisit it one day and write a longer version – I think she deserves it.
Outside of Bundaberg, Queensland, Mary sat and waited for the train. The wind swept across the baked fields, whipping up clouds of dust from the remnants of failed crops. Drought and the depression had taken its toll, and now the country was at war, yet life struggled on in rural Queensland. Mary enjoyed watching the trains. Perhaps she saw them as reminders that there was another world beyond the bare plains, a place where life was not struggling, tenuously clutching on at the edges of parched dirt and economic ruin. She would watch the people in the carriages as they rattled past, their possessions and hopes stacked high as they headed south, and although she was only eight years old and couldn’t yet join these people in their search for a better life, dreams of places far away filled her head.
This day, however, she was waiting for a particular train. Every week, a train hauling its load of sugar cane would depart Bundaberg and head south across the dry plains, to be unloaded for processing and distribution to the southern states. The driver, an older man with a kind face, would stop the train and give her some sugar cane, pleased by the young child’s happiness to see him. Then, he would climb back into the cabin, and set off once again. Mary greatly looked forward to this weekly ritual, the sweet juice of the sugar cane a rare treat in a world where such things were rare. As she waited, her sister Elizabeth approached from the opposite side of the track. Elizabeth was older by four years and hardened to the world, her young face containing a weariness beyond her years. They both possessed their mother’s features, an angular face with pale, quick eyes, but few recognised them as sisters.
‘Mary!’ she called as she clambered over a fence. ‘You know Father wants us back at the house at 4 o’clock.’
‘I know,’ Mary said. ‘I was waiting for the sugar cane man. He’s usually here by now.’
Elizabeth knelt next to her sister.
‘That will just have to wait. You don’t want to make Father angry. Come along now.’ She took Mary’s hand, and pulled her to her feet. ‘And look at you, your clothes are filthy.’
Mary looked down at her dress, and scraped at some dirt with her fingernail.
‘I’m sorry, don’t tell father or grandma.’ Mary said. ‘I’ll clean it myself before dinner.’
Their grandmother, an austere woman, did not look upon the soiling of clothes kindly. She had lived in Ireland for most of her life, and moved to Australia to support her son as he struggled to transition to civilian life after discharging from the army. Her anger was terrible when roused, and both wished to avoid it.
‘Alright,’ Elizabeth said. ‘But use the washboard around the back of the house, the old one. No one can see you there.’
Mary nodded in agreement, trusting in her sister’s judgement. Elizabeth understood the realities of the world much more than her, and had paid a price for it, the carefree nature of a child worn down into an adult pragmatism that seemed odd coming from a girl of her age. She was always looking out for her younger sister, and protected her as best she could.
‘Come on,’ Elizabeth said, as she grasped Mary’s hand. ‘Let’s not keep Father waiting.’
The two then set off down the tracks, towards their home.
John O’Shaughnessy was a cold, taciturn man. He had spent ten years in the army, serving as an enlisted soldier in the Royal Engineers, before discharging and moving with his wife to Australia. The transition to civilian life had not been an easy one. Despite the birth of his children, he had spiralled into alcoholism, before the death of his wife during a botched clandestine abortion snuffed out any embers of warmth that had remained inside him. This loss had driven him to the point of breakdown, and he refused to speak about it. Perhaps it was shame that caused him to never speak of his deceased wife, but whatever the reason, he attempted to remedy whatever pain he felt by sinking further into bottles of scotch, and as such, a bottle was never far from his hand. Mary and Elizabeth only had vague memories of their mother, the only female presence in their life was provided by their grandmother, who lived with them in a vain attempt to prevent her son from completely falling apart. As he sat at the head of the table, he ran his eyes over his daughters.
‘You two,’ he began, his words silencing the table. ‘When I say I want you home at four, I mean it.’
‘Yes Father.’ Elizabeth said, quietly.
‘And I want your chores done properly. If I come home tomorrow to find what I did today, there will be hell to pay.’ He banged his hand upon the table, making the plates jump.
The two girls knew to remain quiet and obedient, as it was the safest response. Their grandmother entered, and put plates of food in front of them without a word. They began to eat in silence.
Suddenly, their father spoke.
‘Mary, take that bracelet off. I don’t want to see you wearing it at this table. Give it to me.’
‘But it belonged to mother …’ Mary began, as she covered the bracelet with her hand.
‘Don’t ever mention her.’ their father growled.
‘But she used to wear it!’ Mary protested, the fear of her father briefly forgotten.
Elizabeth tugged at Mary’s arm in warning.
‘I told you never to mention her!’ he roared.
The table fell into silence. Their father rose, and stomped into the kitchen. Knowing that his anger would only grow, Mary quietly got up from the table, and headed towards her bedroom. The bedroom was a sanctuary, and was where she read every night. Her books were treasured items that transported her away to places that seemed so real she felt she could nearly reach out and touch them. After she had read that night, as she lay in the darkness, she heard her father yelling from the next room in a drunken rage. She could hear the voice of her grandmother, attempting to calm her son down. It was not an unusual occurrence. There was a crash as her father overturned a table, before the front door slammed, and quiet returned to the house. Mary lay silently, clutching a book to her chest, desperately trying not to cry.
Some years later, Mary and Elizabeth sat in the backyard of their home, underneath a large eucalyptus tree. Mary quite often liked to read underneath this tree. They sat silently, staring upwards into the branches. Their father had left some days earlier, and not returned. Whether he ever would, they did not know. He had grown more violent over the years, frequently hitting the girls, particularly Elizabeth, with whatever he could lay his hands on. Their legs were often welted and faces bruised, but no one at the local school seemed to notice. If they did, they considered it firmly none of their business, and remained uninvolved. Their grandmother had passed away, and despite her uncaring nature, her death had stripped away any last vestiges of stability from their lives. Their father now seemed to be gradually detaching from reality, frequently spending hours drunkenly raging at people unseen, or disappearing for days at a time. Mary and Elizabeth looked after each other as best they could, with Elizabeth seeing to the general running of the house. But, it was taking an increasing toll on her. Her personality darkened, and she became withdrawn, hardly speaking.
‘When do you think he will come back?’ Mary asked.
Elizabeth remained silent for a moment.
‘I don’t know.’
‘I hope he never does.’ Mary said. She had never said this aloud, but knew her sister agreed. It was relief to finally say the words.
Elizabeth kept her head back, looking up into the tree. She enjoyed watching birds, observing their flight and attempting to identify them by song. Mary poked at the ground with a stick.
‘Elizabeth,’ Mary continued, ‘do you ever think of leaving?’.
‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Nothing good will come from staying. There is nothing for us here. Mother wouldn’t have wanted this for us.’
‘Mother is dead, Mary.’ Elizabeth said, as she got to her feet. ‘What she wanted doesn’t matter. What matters is where we are.’
‘There must be a place we can go. South, maybe, with Aunt Margret. Anywhere but here.’
Elizabeth laughed sharply.
‘We haven’t spoken to Margret in years. How would we survive?’
‘I don’t know, but I’d rather take my chances than stay here, afraid.’
Elizabeth cast her head down, and looked at the ground.
‘You’ve always had your head in the clouds, Mary. You read too many of those books.’
‘I’ve been putting money aside, from my work at the shop. Father doesn’t know about it. We can buy train tickets. Come with me tomorrow morning to the train station, and we can get away from this place forever.’
The front door crashed, and their father lurched into the house. Elizabeth looked at Mary, before finally nodding.
The next morning, the two sisters stood in the early morning mist at Bundaberg Train Station. Each had packed everything they owned. Mary’s suitcase was held together with twine, her refusal to abandon her books had left it unable to close.
‘I’ve got us tickets to Brisbane, and from there we can get to Bowral. I’ve written to Aunt Margret. She’ll let us stay with her.’
Mary held out the tickets to Elizabeth.
‘I’m not going with you.’ Elizabeth said. ‘I’m going north, to Cairns. I can get work on a farm up there. I want to get away from all this, as far as I can. I don’t need anyone to provide for me.’
Elizabeth gently closed Mary’s hand around the tickets.
‘But where will you stay?’ Mary asked, as she began to cry. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’m sorry, Elizabeth said, her voice shaking. ‘It’s just something that I have to do. I need to get away, and be alone for a while. I don’t know who I am, Mary. I need to find out.’
‘But what will I do?’ Mary sobbed, as tears fell to the gravel at her feet.
Elizabeth took her hand. ‘You don’t need me to protect you anymore. Please try to understand.’
The two sisters embraced. Soon after, Mary watched as the train carrying Elizabeth moved away, tears running down her face, until the train disappeared into the distance. Then, she sat down, and waited for her train, finally joining those she watched as a child as they began their journey south.
Years later, Mary stood outside of a new house in Bowral, New South Wales. One of many new homes that were being built in the area, its white weatherboards shone brightly in the sun, and was fronted by an immaculate garden. It was the 1950’s, and the country was changing. People began to settle down and enjoy luxuries that would have been unimaginable only a few decades earlier, clustering together in newly created suburbs as a testament to prosperity. Elizabeth had remained in North Queensland, and the two had not spoken for several years. Eventually, the sisters received word that their father had died due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and that his final years had seen him destitute and dependent on the state. Neither attended the funeral. After her move to New South Wales, Mary had worked in a library, saving money for her plans to travel the country. She chronicled her thoughts in a diary, where she wrote of Elizabeth often, and memories of her childhood surfaced frequently. These diaries were never thrown away. Soon after, she met Ian Smith, a handsome Navy man, at a local ball. Both were instantly drawn to each other. Ian was charismatic and well-spoken, a widely-travelled man who had seen many sights during his time in the Navy. It could have been this worldly nature that drew Mary to him, captivating her with his easy smile and fantastic tales of foreign cities. They were soon married, and Mary fell pregnant. As she stood in front of her new home, carrying her first child, one wonders if she saw it as the culmination of a long and tiring search, that the life she had so desperately wanted as a young girl in Queensland was now, at long last, within reach.
I know this isn’t a lot to update with, but I am writing more, and trying to post it as it comes out. I really hope there aren’t too many errors, but I suppose not much can be expected from drafts. I also gave the city a name. Yay?
His heart began to slow from it careening rhythm, and his vision faded from the brilliant luminosity of before. Whatever process had taken place within him, was now slowing down and returning to its previous state. Muscles tingled as their fluid supply returned to baseline. Refocusing, Erys scanned the dirtied paper containing the hastily scribbled information which had lead him to this place. It didn’t answer many questions, and had cost a years worth of high-quality oil, but it had proved correct so far, and that was good enough. Information about the secretive inner workings of the city were hard to come by, as most were simply too frightened of the Gearmen and their brown cells to offer anything of use, the prospect of vanishing during the night buying silence more effectively than money ever could. Others plainly didn’t know anything at all, and didn’t care. They worked their allotted jobs, plied by cheap ethanol and empty-headed joy of the numerous entertainment complexes, and didn’t question the workings of the world that surrounded them. Erys couldn’t really blame them. If he could have forgotten all of this, the mechanical eyes, the piercing metal spikes, he would have done so, and lived out his life searching the bottom of ethanol botles, blearily accomplishing what little he could. But the thought of Alisia would remain. The irreplaceable loss bound to the hollow in his chest, the absence of that most precious, could not be forgotten.
He smoothed the paper against his coat, eyes straining through the muted light. ‘REACH COMPARTMENT 762 AT CYCLE CHANGE. AVOID PATROLS. LOOK FOR ENTRY. ONE CHANCE.’ Messy and borderline illegible, the information had come from someone who moved between the six cities, managing to survive in the harsh wastelands that surrounded Vaporveil. Denied entry by all cities, and hunted mercilessly whenever sighted, their harrowed existence granted them a dogged determination to survive, and a resourcefulness that could not be underestimated, which was highly valued by people such as Erys. They infiltrated into the depths of the cities, gathering information and resources, sabotaging where they could, but were hopelessly outmatched in power and numbers, and the grim sight of their lifeless bodies strung up along the walls of Vaporveil was an often repeated tale from the rare few granted access into the city from the outside. Officially, they were called Strangers. This particular stranger, Erys recalled, had just returned from Ashen, the sprawling city of fire and monstrous furnaces to the north. Backed by the Soot Mountains, grown through centuries of accumulated particle buildup from the constant firing of the cities furnaces, it stood glowing brilliant vermilion amongst a sea of dusty black, its burning light reaching for miles around. Erys had not spoken to anyone who had actually seen it, until he met the curious stranger deep within Vaporveils industrial sector, where he bought the information needed to access the cities protected interior.
He looked for instructions on the next step. ‘FOLLOW THE PIPES’ it read, written hurriedly and understated, as all of it was. Eyrs glanced upwards, and saw solid bronze pipes, bound by steel in bunches of three, snaking along the ceiling. All heading in the same singular direction. He stuffed the paper in his coat pocket, and wiped the condensation from his eyes. ‘One more step’ he thought. ‘One more step is all it ever takes.’ He set off into the gloom.
Reaching through hissing blasts of steam, Erys tentatively put his hand upon the door. It felt warm, humming with suppressed energy, barely constrained by plated steel. Oil dripped continuously from its face, snaking along the rivets in burnt sienna rivers, although flowing from no obvious source; pushed through its metal skin by immeasurable forces unknown. Clockwork gears and machinery ran along its border, visible beneath the metal plates of the front wall which turned opaque as it approached the ground, rendering its innards visible as the building struck deep into the concrete. Erys remained still, his hand motionless upon the door. He was weary of being seen, but felt strangely paralysed in the sight of his goal. A single unwanted observer, an alarm raised, and he would soon be disappearing into the black depths of the Gearmen’s sanctuary, on the far side of the City facing onto Sable Bay. No one returned from that place, so he was told. Stories were whispered about figures seen in windows, hands clenched despairingly on bars, cries emanating out and falling upon the crashing waves. Yet, he was not compelled to move. He was grappling with the unnerving feeling that he had seen this door before. This was impossible. ‘I would know if I had been here’, he reasoned with himself. But the feeling remained, splintered into his thoughts and refusing to be dismissed, an indistinct recognition – as if from a long-forgotten dream. He shook his head, clearing his vision. ‘Alisia once said that I never forgot anything, that I stored everything away, for what good it did. Maybe she knew more than I ever thought’. If he ever saw her again, he would tell her that she was right. With sudden bursts, lamps illuminated one by one into the distance, spreading their yellowed light onto the darkening street, shaking Erys from his introspection. The City had completed switching cycles, with the transition into night phase now fully complete. Raucous voices drifted from nearby entertainment complex, loosed by cheap spirits and the absence of worry. Oblivious and uncaring, free from burdens of larger purpose, he could have envied them. Then, impeccably timed footsteps began to echo from the distance. An approaching patrol. The mechanical eyes of the Gearmen were always watchful, and never missed much. Erys pushed himself close against the door, and frantically began searching for the release point. He had to get in. Now.
The footsteps grew louder. Erys could picture their cold, insensate eyes, mechanical and unblinking, immune to fear or reason. They simply stared, and took you. As he groped at the door, feeling for a catch or release, his searching hands felt a small cylinder of metal, protruding slightly from the doors face. It seemed like it could be turned, and above it read ‘TURN TO SYNC’ , burnt chrome into the metal. With the Gearmen approaching fast, he had no other option. He gripped the cylinder, and turned. A hiss of steam erupted, and the steel tube clicked fully around, before retreating into a chamber behind it. Erys stood close to the door, willing it to open. He wondered if he would soon be one of those unnamed faces, staring bleakly out from those immense barred windows, all hope sinking behind the black waves of Sable Bay. He would be lost. She would be lost. This fear sunk deep in his stomach, and shot shivers up his spine. That could not happen. He would not allow that to happen. As his panic mounted, a metal spike slick with a viscera of oil and grime, shot forth from the door, driving into his chest in one savage motion, the cold metal piercing through his flesh and into his heart. Electric bolts of pain drove the air from his lungs, as the spike connected with the machinery within, engaging the geartrains with a series of clicks. His vision dimmed as he slumped against the door, all thoughts expelled by the burning agony being driven into his chest. His heart laboured for a moment, straining within his chest wall, before resuming in rhythm with the invading machine, beating unnaturally quickly in time with the clockwork mechanisms of the door. The Gearmen were close now. The spike retracted from his chest, and retreated into the door, dripping a trail of blood and oil. Eyrs held his chest, as oil dripped from his nose. His vision flared and cleared, surroundings now visible in vivid detail, energy pumping through his veins, feeling a strength in his muscles he never thought possible. The door now opened, sliding upwards and revealing nothing save a faint light isolated at the end of gaping stretch of darkness. He staggered through the opening, the door slamming shut just as the Gearman marched past. Collecting himself, he squinted as murky lights flickered to life along the ceiling, revealing a vast corridor, narrow and suffocating. The smell of oil hung thickly, and condensation fell in a constant rain from above, the humidity oppressive. He was here. This is where he would find his retribution. As he pulled crumpled paper from his pocket, on which was scribbled all the information he received from his contact about this place, he became aware of an altogether new question. He had come for answers, for the truth. But for this question, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know the answer. ‘What am I?’
Ok, so I’m starting something new. I’ll continue on with this as I write more. I’m not entirely sure where its headed, so hopefully I figure it out at some point. I also hope it doesn’t suck.
Erys stood on the corner of a busy city street, idly drawing upon a cigarette as the crowds hurried past, scurrying about in chaotic patterns before disappearing into the maw of the creeping grey smog. Blank, flat-effect faces pushed past him, scarves wrapped over their mouths in futile opposition to the oppressive smoke. He didn’t mind the smog, inescapable as it was. It pressed its back against the dirty panes of the giant downtown buildings and crept its way down your lungs with dusty fingers, but to him, it was the warm cloak of anonymity. In a world of industry gone mad, where the machine of the city constantly churned and devoured the identities of those who composed it, it was easy to hide. He liked that. It sprawled black and wide, steel and concrete fingers reaching deep into the sky, obliterating the sun with cold indifference. Plenty of shadows in which to remain unnoticed. This would soon be a valuable commodity. However, standing amongst it, he realised that one felt small, preyed upon. At street level, sections where the exterior of the buildings had begun to wear and drop away revealed the clockwork innards of gears and pistons, a reminder that the city was alive, watching. Hungry. He lit another cigarette. ‘Those things will kill you, Erys’ he remembered his wife used to say to him, scolding gently, her mouth suppressing the beginnings of a smile. He could smell her hair, hear her voice. The memory stung inside his head. She was gone now. He instinctively put his hand to his heart, and felt the clicking of machinery beneath. Taken from him. Agents of the city, the Gearmen, took anyone they deemed necessary and they had come for them one night, kicking the door to splinters and proclaiming in their icy monotone that this was for the greater good. Bound and stunned, a syringe had been jammed in his neck, full of an oozing cocktail that thickened his blood and stopped his heart. He had heard stories like this, of people vanishing in the deepest of night, before returning a few days later, always different. Their minds were altered, chemicals having dug their roots deep into their brain, and their bodies twisted into metal nightmares, limbs or organs replaced with a jumbled mess of cogs and camshafts. They never lived long. He had never believed it could be true. Erys had awoken, alone and disorientated, his wife now taken to a fate unknown, a burning spike of pain in his chest where his heart once resided. He dropped the cigarette, stomping it to embers beneath his feet. He was not a man prone to letting go of things easily, and too much had been taken to not demand retribution. And he knew just where to start. It all starts with the city. ‘A lot of things can kill you,’ he recalled he answered his wife one morning. ‘It just makes it easier to find the things worth living for.’
The shadows grew long, and Erys glanced at his watch. It would be night soon. With the sun mostly hidden it was hard to tell, such was life here, but the punctuality of the system was one thing that could be relied upon. He moved away from the corner, taking up position on the other side of the street. Erys knew he needed to watch carefully. If he missed the right building, he was unsure whether he would get another chance, as some took months to reappear, and others not at all. His heart clicked briefly, metal snagging inside his chest, before an aberrant rhythm began to labour, geartrains grinding and threatening to cease. ‘Please, not now’ he whispered to himself. Darkness began to dance around the corners of his vision, calling on him to succumb, to give in to the malfunction within. Staggering, he clawed desperately at his heart, begging it to continue. He had to go on. For her. Finally, his heart began to resume its normal rhythm. The shadows dissipated as he gasped for breath, willing the life back into his chest. Slowly, he stood upright. Crimson spots of blood lay scattered around his feet. Feeling at his nose, he hand came away smeared with red and oil. He was running out of time.
Crunching of gears signalled the beginning of the next cycle, as the buildings began moving to life. The crowds dispersed off the street, heading swiftly for their residential complexes, or the nearest entertainment centre, painted gaudily and spotted with lights to attract the attention of those passing by. They had never really been his scene, serving cheap spirits to assuage the heartless. Cogs began to move achingly, as steam poured from the outlet pipes above each floor. The interiors began to shift, reassembling itself to suit a new nightly purpose. Yellow light crept from within, spreading out upon the street in smears. One floor rotated inwards, guided along strained metal rails, throwing coppery rust like polluted snow, before it disappeared into the buildings entrails, and vanished from sight. Another began to work down into its place, a night cycle facility, waiting to accept its workers and maintainers. All over the city this was happening, the nightly re-purposing of itself, a monster shedding its skin. But, he was looking for one building in particular, and he had been given information that it would appear tonight, in this sector. This information had not been easy to attain, and had cost him more than he cared to remember, but it would be worth it by the end. It had to be worth it. Then, he saw it. A dark, metal-veined building came sliding out to the streetfront, revealing itself through coils of steam. It dripped oil, pooling upon the street in industrial lakes, as gears clicked through its metal plated skin. Possessing a solitary riveted door, it did not look inviting. A grime covered plate above the door read ‘INTERNAL’. This was it. He was sure of it. Erys clutched his heart, and approached the door.
Death glanced over the mornings schedule, empty sockets peering with cold intensity over the neatly typed page. It was a typical day.
His assistant had a habit of inserting these curious puns into his work. He didn’t quite understand it, and even if he had, he had long forgotten how to laugh. He thought he had once, but it turned out that he had gum in his neck. Did it involve moving? Or was it a sitting activity? These questions irritated him, but the menial details of existence had long become blurred, turned to dust inside his bleached white skull. But, all in all, a typical day. Except something was wrong. He couldn’t quite determine what it was, but a foreign and unnerving sensation had begun to press down upon him, straining his joints beneath his sable cloak. A feeling of listlessness, a silent and creeping ennui, advancing upon him as he attempted to concentrate upon his morning tasks. Being unable to define this feeling frustrated him, but he had found it was easy to be of few words when you generally killed people with them. Suddenly it dawned on him. He was tired. The realisation was startling, as he was fairly sure that he wasn’t supposed to get tired, so he turned the sensation over gingerly in his head, examining it with the meticulous scrutiny only an eternity of collecting souls could provide. Despite this, the feeling grew. He didn’t even have a brain, and yet he was sure he had a headache. Death was immovable and unending, and did not have bad days where it would rather stay in bed. It did not have moods or inclinations. Remembering this fact compelled him to rise from his desk, and attempt to focus on the upcoming tasks of the day. Although, he could recall a day where he had lost part of his foot. It had eventually turned up underneath a filing cabinet, but if something could be qualified as a bad day, that was probably it. He reached for his scythe, the metal shining and edge grinning in the gloom of his office. Grasping it firmly, he swept out the door, cloak trailing behind him as a shadow does its master.
Arriving at his first destination, he saw that he was to collect the soul of a forty year old man, who was heading for a chest-clutching heart attack. He had arrived at a park, on a summer day one could use as a template for all days to follow. The sun shone brilliantly in an azure sky, flawless and golden. Death did not have much appreciation for good weather. To him, good weather just meant more people outside to be hit by buses and die in freak yachting accidents. Glancing around for his victim, he saw a man running laps around a calm lake, completely oblivious to all except the track presented before him. That was the first victim of the day. He certainly didn’t look prone to a massive heart attack, but cardiology was not one of his areas of interest. Besides, appearances could be deceiving. He waited for the man to complete his lap. Running was also not one of his areas of interest. All-powerful eternal being or not, no one looks dignified running in a cloak. As he waited, the vague agitation he had experienced before began to renew with increased intensity. He attempted to ignore the sensation once again, but it continued to grow, dripping onto his normally ordered thought like a faulty tap inside his head. Fatigue and routine. An eternity of dispensing his namesake had now begun to takes its toll. Now he could grasp what was wrong – he didn’t want to do this any more. With the thought crystallised, it was now impossible to placate. In the midst of this epiphany, he almost failed to notice that his victim has rounded the last bend, and was now approaching rapidly. Perhaps devoting his full attention to the business at hand would assuage the turmoil he now felt. He rose to his full height, and spoke as the rather red faced man drew near.
‘I HAVE COME …’
The man did not stop. In fact, he didn’t even slow, or show any sign of acknowledgement in the slightest, and continued on to his next lap. This was quite a blow. When gifted with extraordinary power, one likes to be treated in a manner befitting as such, not viewed with as much interest as a telephone pole. Why was he doing this? He was sure he could be doing other things, not being ignored by a mortal more concerned with lap times than an ancient apparition coming to take his life. What was barely contained now broke into full mutiny. Why should he be doing this? What was to stop him from simply returning to his realm, putting his cloak over his head, and sleeping for a thousand years? The running man approached again, significantly more flushed.
‘I HAVE COME FOR …’
Again, the man continued on, headphones on and music blaring. Utterly ignored, Death sat down. He had now arrived at a terminus, a suitable point for the end. Only this time, it would be his end. He placed his scythe upon the ground, loathe to leave it but unable to take it on the upcoming journey. Producing a bony hand from his sleeve, he raised it above his head. Soon he would have peace, and would no longer be forced into the servitude that he could not remember commencing. Surely his assistant would do a satisfactory job, although the puns would have to go. Bringing his hand down, he placed Death’s touch upon himself, and began to fade, the anguish dissolving into joyous relief, flooding over him like liquid. Now, he could rest. Before the last remnant blinked out, he remembered his skull polishing. That may have cheered him up, now that he thought about it.